Legislation could ease kinship care woes

About 128,000 children in Georgia and an estimated 103,000 grandparents and other non-parental relatives could be affected by legislation scheduled to be introduced this week by Rep. Stacey Abrams (D-DeKalb) and others.

One bill would give family caregivers of minor children up to 90 days to provide evidence of eligibility to enroll the children in the relative’s school district, allowing additional time to locate birth certificates and immunization records for the children in their charge.

Currently kin have 30 days in most school districts to provide documentation to enroll a child in school. That can be problematic for family who agree to take in children when a parent cannot, Abrams said. Relatives often receive scant notice they must care for a child whose parent has become ill, died, is incarcerated, is institutionalized or is on military deployment.

The goal is to ease the “extra burden on people who did not (choose) to become parents late in life,” said Abrams.

A second bill would make it easier for grandparents and kin to take a child in their custody to the doctor, dentist or receive vaccinations. Currently the caregiver is required to have power of attorney for the child, which may be difficult or time-consuming to obtain. The bill would replace the power of attorney with an affidavit that doesn’t require the parent’s signature.

The two bills are likely to be followed this week by others that Abrams and other legislators have been working on based on a yearlong study on kinship care that wrapped up in December.

That group was created by the Legislature last year in response to the growing number of non-parental kin, overwhelmingly grandparents, taking care of children in Georgia. Because the living arrangements are typically informal, it is difficult to collect reliable data. But according to the Georgia Family Partnership Connection, the number of children in kinship care rose 78 percent between 2002 and 2012. Abrams attributes the surge to Georgia’s population growth, an increase in pockets of poverty, increased drug addiction and untreated mental illness.

About 4 percent of Georgia’s children are estimated to be in kinship care, which is in line with the national average, but rural areas in central and southwest Georgia have rates as high as 12 percent.

In the Southeast U.S., about one-third of the grandparents raising grandchildren live in poverty, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Human Services. Another study by the National Association of American Families found that in a sample of 770 grandchildren surveyed, almost half do not have sufficient access to nutritional food. In addition, many who provide kinship care are not physically healthy. About half experience high blood pressure and 23 percent are diagnosed with diabetes.

At hearings across the state last year, grandparents told study committee members they experienced extremely high levels of stress and anxiety caring for grandchildren. Those issues, in turn, can affect the children in their charge, most of whom already have experienced trauma before they arrived in their grandparents’ homes.

“You have to have a policy response to that,” said Abrams.